Sacred Sites

November 1st, 2008

Skara Brae

What makes a site sacred?

When I started visiting Pagan sacred sites I knew they would be places of great beauty, spiritually, and ancestor worship. Places that would make us feel as though we are a part of something greater than ourselves. My search was for a link between then and now.

While in the Orkney Islands, we walked in the footsteps of an ancient people. We saw the places where these people lived and where they buried and honored their dead. What did we have in common, how did they live and survive?  They tell us their stories preserved in stone, evidence of tradition and a link to their beliefs.

What is a sacred site? It’s what transcends us.

It is in that sense that I consider this month’s selection to be a sacred place. It’s not what you might consider the typical site. The selection is a village, a community of people, perhaps even the builders of the nearby passage tomb at Maeshowe. Located in the islands of Orkney, it shares the stark landscape with other Neolithic sites. Amongst the standing stones and burial cairns there is a place called Skara Brae.

The Land Itself  – The Geography

Once buried in sand until a storm in 1850 unearthed it, Skara Brae is one of the best-preserved Neolithic sites in the U.K.  The land is desolate and the wind roars in your ears. You can hear the nearby ocean with the waves crashing on the rocks. There is a sense of the timeless nature of this ancient landscape, over 5000 years ago the ocean was miles away from where it is today, it has slowly crept in with time and is eroding away the edges of the Neolithic village. Soon the earth and water will take back its secrets, but for now it stands against time.

According to Historic Scotland’s Guide to the Orkneys, “Radiocarbon evidence indicates Skara Brae was occupied from about 3100 BC, for about six hundred years. Around 2500 BC, the climate changed, turning much colder and the settlement may have been abandoned by its inhabitants”. There are many theories as to why the people of Skara Brae suddenly left, but there is no solid evidence suggesting why this occurred.

Skara Brae used to sit inland a bit more and there had once been a fresh water loch. Gradually the cliffs were eroded by storms and the loch drained out into the sea. Not much has changed from then to now, if you took away the houses and the rock walls, little would be different.


Skara Brae was a well integrated closely knit community. Connecting the houses in the village was a series of passageways from the main entrance to the other buildings. The evidence speaks of a people who worked closely together for survival. When excavated the findings suggested that there was a freestanding structure separate from the houses and it was designed as a workshop. Archaeologists found chert fragments left from making stone tools. There was no metal at this time so people used chert (a local stone) to fashion animal bones into tools.


Here is a picture of one of the Houses, clearly visible is the dresser and the fire, with the beds on either side of the hearth.

In the Midden

Skara Brae is built on top of an older village. The people living in the earlier village had collected their refuse on a nearby site where after gradual decomposition, midden formed. Midden is refuse; essentially it is the trash that these people piled up at the edge of their settlement. This was a huge compost heap containing ash, shells, bones, stone and other waste from everyday activities. The midden became the glue that held together the walls of their homes, adding much needed wind proofing and weatherproofing.

They began building Skara Brae by carving into the midden, forming the new houses and passageways. Once completed, flagstones were brought in and placed along the interior walls giving structure to the rooms.

Their furniture was made of stone because Orkney then as now, was almost without trees. Flagstones were readily available in Orkney and you see them used in everything from beds and dressers to doors and hearths.

The design of the entry required a guest to bow down as they entered, perhaps in a gesture of humility or respect to the host. What they displayed upon entering the house seems important to them based on the placement of the dresser and the position of the door.
Preservation of the Houses

The houses have survived because the midden it was built into protected it. After the village was abandoned, a sand storm buried the village and the sand settled into the foundation and between the flagstones giving everything a stabilizing factor.

Because of the way the houses have been preserved, we must look down into them to view them. It’s hard to imagine these houses were once roofed. Timber and whalebone were more than likely used for the roofs depending on what was available at the time. It is thought that the roofs were made of turf, weighted down with a network of ropes made from twisted heather.


A central hearth would have heated the house as well as providing the fire for cooking. The lighting would have been poor, the only light would have come from the fire and there is no evidence to suggest any lamps existed. There would have been little ventilation, (possibly a hole in the roof) and the houses would have been very smoky.

They grew crops, chiefly barley and some wheat. Fishing was coastal, mainly cod and saithe. Evidence from refuse tells us that they ate fish, shellfish, sheep or goats, and pigs. Eggshells found in the midden tell us that they collected eggs from bird’s nests.


No tools related to spinning or weaving have been discovered and no clothing survives. Jewelry has been found mostly in the form of beads, pendants, and pins, almost all were made from bone, stone, or teeth from marine mammals.

Their Religion

It is uncertain what these people believed in. But as evidenced by the nearby passage portal tomb at Maeshowe it leads us to believe it was some form of ancestor worship. It is during this time period that our ancestors were spending a considerable amount of time and energy constructing tombs, an estimated average of 10,000 working hours on each tomb. Once again indicating that this was of great importance to them.
Skara Brae Abandoned

Some speculate that the village was abandoned because of some disaster, others believe that it fell into disuse, people moved away in the greater interest of farming and better lands.

With the beginning of the Bronze Age new ideas and concepts were spreading through Britain. Construction moved away from the large monuments such as Maeshowe and clustered designs such as Skara Brae were abandoned in favor of individual stone houses in small, dispersed communities.

Skara Brae is a World Heritage Site. Inscription on this list confirms the exceptional universal quality of a cultural or natural site, which deserves protection for the benefit of humanity


Historic Scotland – Skara Brae – Official Guide

Visitor Center and Guided Tour

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